In my last column, I focused on the wide receiver position in the 2013 draft. The recurring theme was size, a continuing trend both in college football and the NFL. I mentioned Justin Hunter, Keenan Allen, Deandre Hopkins, Chris Harper, Da’Rick Rogers, among others. The shortest was Hopkins, at just under 6-foot-2; Hunter was the sleekest at 6-foot-4, 196 pounds. With the possible exception of Hunter, who ran an official 4.44 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine, and is the most explosive vertical receiver on the board, it’s a group whose collective traits reflect their physical dimensions, their hands and their competitiveness as opposed to their speed.
You look at Sunday football, and what names often come to mind as the top receivers? Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, AJ Green, Brandon Marshall, Julio Jones, maybe even Michael Crabtree after last season’s playoff run. I know everyone has their personal favorites, so I’m sure I’m leaving some out, but that’s not the point. The prevailing theme is size. Wide receiver seems to be an evolving and growing position in the NFL, and the annual influx of college talent is adding to the new dynamic.
That has led me to think more and more about the cornerback position, and where that might be headed in the NFL. That, of course, has a concurrent impact on how college corners are evaluated and projected. You talk to any defensive coordinator in the league, and one of the first things they proclaim is how much more they can do schematically if they have even one corner that can play man-to-man with no help from either an underneath linebacker or an over the top safety. That player, the man-to-man corner, may be the most vital piece of the defensive puzzle. He shapes the defense tactically, allowing for maximum flexibility with both the pressure schemes and the coverage concepts, especially in those critical third down situations.
Keep in mind as well that zone concepts have man-to-man elements. Talk to anyone with experience in Dick LeBeau’s “zone blitz” concepts, for instance, and they will tell you that the coverage is really about matching up to receivers based on receiver alignment and route combinations. “Cover-3”, which is a three deep zone concept, becomes man-to-man on the outside if the widest receiver stays wide of the numbers. “Cover-4”, or quarters as many know it, also has man principles for the corners depending on the routes.
Even two-deep looks, which we normally think of as pure zone, can be compromised due to the inability of the coverage to convert to man versus certain receiver distributions and locations. A great illustration was Crabtree’s seam touchdown against the Patriots last season in a decisive Monday night game. It was a 3x1 set (that’s the distribution) with Crabtree the inside slot (that’s the location) on the three receiver side. New England played a more traditional Cover-2 -- Brandon Spikes, the linebacker to the three-receiver side, did not run down the middle hole with Crabtree, allowing Crabtree to split the safeties. That was the weak spot in the coverage. How could that void be closed? The best way: have the back side safety to the single receiver side slide into the middle to take away the vertical seam. If you do that, you are then asking your weak side corner to match up man-to-man with no safety help. That’s the necessary coverage conversion. You see what I’m getting at? You have so many more options, and answers defensively with a corner or corners capable of playing man coverage.
All you have to do is talk to the Jets coaching staff about the impact of Darrelle Revis on their capability to game plan. He gave them limitless flexibility. The overriding point is that the ability of corners to play man-to-man effectively cannot be understated or devalued. The Crabtree touchdown I just described was but one example of how receiver distribution and location can defeat coverage. There’s so much more involved, both from a personnel and a formation standpoint. What do we say all the time now? It’s a matchup league, and it’s getting progressively more difficult to match up to the bigger, more athletic tight ends and receiving backs in the middle of the field, between the numbers. That’s where defenses need help; help means more bodies to double team, bracket, whatever principle you want to utilize to counter mismatches. The result: more single coverage on the outside. You have to feel comfortable with that if you’re a defensive coordinator; otherwise, you do not have the solutions you’d like, and your playbook becomes reduced.
In this expanding era of bigger and more physical wide receivers, what is the impact on the corner position generally, and more specifically, on this draft class? Will teams classify and categorize attributes and traits a little differently due to this increasing size? Think about it. If you’re Minnesota and Green Bay, and you play Detroit and Chicago twice a year with Johnson and Marshall respectively, doesn’t that influence your thinking in terms of evaluation? Conventionally, some of the characteristics desired in corners, especially to play man-to-man effectively, were quick and light feet, smooth and fluid change of direction, the ability to plant and drive with burst from off coverage position, and the capability to turn and run with both short area acceleration and functional long speed to defend vertical routes. There’s more involved than that, but that’s a handy Cliffs Notes version to establish the point.
History strongly suggests that most corners with those traits, with few exceptions, are shorter and sleeker, not taller with more weight, as in 210-215 pounds. Take Champ Bailey, for example. (By the way, he’s been selected to 12 Pro Bowls, the most of any corner in NFL history). He’s 6-foot-0, a little more than 190 pounds. That has been regarded as outstanding corner size, and there’s no question Bailey, and don’t forget we’re talking about a likely Hall of Fame player, has at times been a tough, physical man-to-man corner, although his forte has been what I call mirror press man. Less physicality, more get in the hip pocket of the receiver and stay locked.
That’s what you want in your corners from a technique and execution standpoint. But let’s say you’re 5-foot-10 or 5-foot-11, 185-190 pounds, and you’re velcroed to a Johnson or a Marshall, are you preventing them from catching the ball? The size differential is just too great. There are two corners in this draft that I love on tape: D.J. Hayden from Houston, and San Diego State’s Leon McFadden. They possess all the athletic and movement attributes you look for, that I described a moment ago. In fact, I would make the argument that Hayden is the most physically gifted corner prospect in this draft class, with his impressive combination of sudden movement, change of direction, ability to effectively play both press man and off coverage zone, competitive and challenging playing personality and, as an added dimension, his willingness to support in the run game aggressively. He’s 5-foot-11, 190 pounds.
McFadden also has the athletic skill set you ideally covet in NFL corners. It’s a first round amalgam of attributes, with his quick feet, loose hips, great balance and body control, and his overall natural athleticism. But he’s less than 5-foot-10, and he weighs 193 pounds. That likely pushes him to the late second or third round; in addition, it relegates him to the slot, where he will have tremendous value for an NFL defense in their sub-packages, and no doubt be a very good player for many years.
The point, then, is this: will teams see size as a more important trait in this new age of wide receivers? Will they be willing to sacrifice the more desirable characteristics already discussed, and that have defined the corner conversation for years and years, for taller, bigger corners that may be lacking in certain areas? It’s a question I continually come back to as I’m studying tape. I certainly don’t have the answer, but I can be sure of one thing: this discussion is taking place in draft rooms all across the league.
Let me throw out some names that I believe will go a long way in telling us how teams feel about the paradigm I just framed. We all know about Xavier Rhodes; at 6-foot-1½, 210 pounds, he has the prototype build and press man mentality for the position. He’ll be drafted in the top 15 next week. These other players are not being talked about quite as much, and they all have some concerns that are very evident on tape: Sanders Commings of Georgia (6-foot-0, 216), LSU’s Tharold Simon (6-foot-2, 202), David Amerson of North Carolina State (6-foot-1, 205), UCLA’s Aaron Hester (6-foot-1 ½, 198). The common thread: their size.
There are two others that need to be mentioned: Johnthan Banks of Mississippi State (6-foot-2, 185), and Blidi Wreh-Wilson of Connecticut (6-foot-1, 195). Banks will be a fascinating case study. Obviously, he’s long and wiry. But he’s not quick and sudden. He does not move like Hayden or McFadden. I fact, he’s simply not as good a corner as Hayden. Banks is more measured and methodical in his movement. He had some balance issues when he changed direction. His transition was not always smooth and efficient. Yet, due to his size and length, some see him as a Richard Sherman kind of player once he gains more experience in press man coverage. For me, that’s a big stretch, and a very generous leap of faith. But it absolutely speaks to the overall point.
No position intrigues me more in this draft than cornerback. As I’ve written and discussed many times over the last couple of months, the NFL is evolving and changing in many different ways. Yet, no one can argue the value of corners in a league that continues to trend more and more to the pass. It’s a premium position, more so than ever. I will be very anxious to see how the corners come off the board next week.